April 16 – Nest Egg

Today’s Factismal: Gentoo penguins and chinstrap penguins make nests out of pebbles so that rain and melting snow can drain out of the nest.

The problem with being a bird that lives in Antarctica is that there aren’t very many trees. Actually, there aren’t any trees at all; the vegetation is mostly mosses and lichens with the occasional blood algae for color. That’s a problem because birds use trees to hide from predators and, more importantly, to build nests that will protect their eggs.

A Gentoo penguin on his nest of pebbles (My camera)

A Gentoo penguin on his nest of pebbles
(My camera)

Fortunately for the penguins in Antarctica, there aren’t very many predators on the land (in the water is another matter). But they still need to protect their eggs. Some penguins, such as the Emperor penguin, use their feet. For 64 days, the proud papa balances the egg on his feet until the chick finally hatches. Even after that, the parents will take turns holding the chick on their feet until it is large enough to survive on its own.

A Chinstrap penguin protecting her chick (My camera)

A Chinstrap penguin protecting her chick
(My camera)

But most penguins aren’t willing to sit in one place while balancing an egg on their toes for two months. They crave a better life. And they get it by building nests. And, for the most part, those nests are built out of pebbles. Though cold and pointy, pebbles offer one indisputable advantage to nests built out of clay (like those of the ovenbird) or spittle (like those of the swift) or dug into the sand (like those of the kingfisher) – pebbles drain. And when you live in a climate as wet as the coast of Antarctica, you need a nest that will drain.

Pebble stealing is a common activity (My camera)

Pebble stealing is a common activity
(My camera)

Though you may not be able to go to Antarctica to observe a penguin nest, you can help scientists by looking for bird’s nests in your own neighborhood. The folks at NestWatch need your help to locate and identify nests across the globe – so why not flock together with them?

April 15 – A little squirrely

Today’s Factismal: Gray squirrels in forests live about six years but most gray squirrels in cities live less than one.

The earliest example of a squirrel showed up more than 40 million year ago. Looking a lot like a modern flying squirrel (but with no moose to keep it company), the early squirrel got the acorn and soon diversified. Today there are 285 different species of squirrel, spread over six continents. It used to be five, but then someone decided that Australia needed squirrels.

A squirrel at lunch (Image courtesy Laughing Squid)

A squirrel at lunch
(Image courtesy Laughing Squid)

Most squirrels feed on plants with occasional bouts of nibbling on insects, slugs, and small birds and snakes. Because they cannot digest cellulose, squirrels prefer the same parts of plants that we do: leaves, buds, nuts (including acorns), and fungi. But unlike people, squirrels have a lot of things that like to feast on them, such as snakes, birds, raccoons, and automobiles to name but three.

And that last predator is why a gray squirrel in an urban environment typically lives less than a year even though the same squirrel would last for six years in a forest. The jerky, back and forth evasion pattern that gray squirrels have evolved to escape from predators in a forest makes it very hard to automobile drivers to avoid hitting the poor beast. As a result, the leading cause of death for gray squirrels in a city is being run over.

A smug grey squirrel with bird food he stole from my feeder (My camera)

A smug gray squirrel with bird food he stole from my feeder
(My camera)

Fortunately for the species, they are exceedingly prolific breeders. A gray squirrel becomes sexually mature at six months and a female can have two litters of two to six baby squirrels each year. As a result, even though they only live a short time, the species is in no danger of dying out. But they do provide biologists with a puzzle: where do they live? What do they eat?

And the biologists would like your help in solving the puzzle. All it takes is a pair of binoculars, a few hours, and a willingness to spy on our tree-dwelling neighbors. If you’d like to help, then why not join Project Squirrel?

April 13 – Lightning Fast

Today’s Factismal: The males of the lightning bug species Photinus carolinus will all flash in unison.

Imagine that you are in the Great Smokey Mountains, hiking along a trail at night. Suddenly, the trees come alive with hundreds of thousands of little lights, all flashing at the same time. You’ve just seen Photinus carolinus (“Light-maker from Carolina”) in action. These little lightning bugs are also called fireflies, even though they are neither bugs nor flies; they are beetles.

A firefly on a leaf(Image courtesy Museum of Science)

A firefly on a leaf
(Image courtesy Museum of Science)

There are over 2,000 species of fireflies, each of them has its own unique flashing pattern including not at all for several species. Only a very few patterns include flashing in unison; these optical chorus lines can be seen in the jungles of Malaysia, along the rivers of the Philippines, and in the forests of Tennessee and South Carolina. For most of the species, the light flash is a way for the one firefly to attract another in order to make more lightning bugs. But there are many fireflies that have a somewhat more insidious purpose; the female fireflies use the flashes to attract males of other species, whom they then turn into dinner.

Not all fireflies eat other fireflies. Many lightning bugs eat plants, pollen, nectar, insects, and even snails! About the only thing that they all do is glow as larvae. If you’d like to learn more about fireflies and help scientists track these lightning bugs, then why not join a firefly watch program?

April 12 – The Art Of Science

Today’s Secret Science Society episode is dedicated to every scientist who is also an artist – which means most of them! While scientists have created art as unusual as cosmic symphonies and as amusing as hidden images. There have been many famous scientists who were also artists and many famous artists who were also scientists. This week, Daniel, Mary, and Peter join their ranks as they discover the art of science!



Mary, Peter and Daniel were just like any other kids. They liked school, but they really enjoyed going on field trips. Sometimes they went to the university and saw the experiments that were being done. Sometimes they went to the nature preserve and watched animals. But today, their class had gone to the art museum. Though they weren’t too sure that they would like it, they were having a great time as they looked at the different works of art and tried to see the science in them.

“Wow!” Peter exclaimed. “Look at how the lines in the pavement in that painting converge.”

“Mr. Medes told Daniel and me about that last week,” Mary said proudly. “It is called perspective, and it was invented by a painter who was also a mathematician. It makes things look really real in paintings. His name was Pruney-something.”

“Brunellesci,” Daniel corrected. “It was a weird name so I wrote it down.”

“That’s neat. I wonder if artists used any science other than math?” Peter said.

“Well, they probably had to know chemistry in order to make their paints,” Daniel replied. “And some of them knew a lot of geology; Mr. Medes told us about the rocks in Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, remember?”

“That’s right; I forgot,” Peter admitted sheepishly. Just then, the three turned the corner into the modern art section of the museum. “Hey! That is so cool!”

Hanging from the ceiling in front of the three friends was a giant sculpture made of many smaller pieces that slowly rotated as they revolved around each other. Mary bent to look at the tag with the name of the art work.

“Vertical foliage by Alexander Calder, on loan from private collection” she read out. “It does look like leaves swirling around.”

“I wonder how he managed to get that to work?” Daniel asked.

“Nothing but a little applied physics,” Mary’s father said.

“What do you mean, dad?” replied Mary.

“It is an admittedly beautiful example of physics in action. Calder used the center of mass to make sure that the sculpture was balanced and then hung it all up so that it could be moved by the air.”

“Center of mass?” Peter asked. “What’s that?”

“Well, to understand that, all you need is two hands and a ruler like this one,” Mary’s father replied after rummaging in his backpack for a moment. “Daniel, stick your hands out about seven inches apart. Now make a fist, but point out with your pointer finger on each hand. Hold your hands level, because I’m going to put this ruler on them and I don’t want it to fall off.”

Looking interested, Daniel complied with his directions. Just as soon as Daniel’s fingers were level, Mary’s father put the ruler on top of them with the one inch mark on top of the left finger and the eight inch mark over the right one.

“OK, now we’re ready. We can all agree that the middle of a ruler is at the six inch mark, right?” Seeing their nods, Mary’s father continued. “Now Daniel is going to slowly move his fingers together. What do you think will happen?”

“The ruler will fall off,” Daniel said promptly. “My fingers will meet at four and a half inches, and the ruler will fall.”

“I don’t know,” Peter said. “Maybe the ruler will stay on somehow.”

Mary disagreed with Peter. “I think that Daniel is right; the ruler will fall.”

“OK,” Mary’s father said. “Let’s find out! Daniel, start slowly moving your fingers together!”

What do you think will happen? Do the experiment!



Mary and Peter watched as Daniel moved his finger together. At the start, the ruler moved with his right hand and slid toward the left. Then it started to move with the other hand and alternated until Daniel’s fingers met at the six inch mark.

“Hey! You cheated!” Mary said. “It should have fallen!”

“OK, you try it!” Daniel challenged.

Mary put the ruler on her fingers, just as they had been on Daniel’s. She then started to move her fingers together. Again the ruler eerily moved with one hand then the other until her fingers met at the middle.

“What’s going on?” Mary asked.

“Daniel and you just found the center of mass of the ruler,” her father said. “When you put the ruler off-center the way that we did, there’s more mass on one side so there’s more weight on the finger on that side. That increases the friction so that the ruler is ‘stuck’ on that finger until the weight is evenly distributed. Where your fingers meet is the place where you could crush all of the mass and still have everything balance. Physicists call that the center of mass, unless they are really old physicists. Then they call it the center of gravity.”

“How does that make the sculpture work?” Daniel asked.

“Every object has a center of mass. If you hang it from that point, the object can turn and move freely. So what Calder did was find the center of mass for each leaf and then put a wire through it. He then arranged the leaves so that the center of mass for the whole bunch passes through that point there” Mary’s father pointed at the center wire of the sculpture. “That put the entire sculpture in such good balance that just a breeze can make it move. Because his sculptures can move by themselves, Calder called them mobiles.”

“Neat!” Peter said. “How about we make a mobile of our own when we get home?”

Daniel and Mary just nodded, as they watched the mobile slowly moving in the breeze.

April 11 – Doctor, doctor!

Today’s Factismal: James Parkinson, the doctor who first described the disease that bears his name, was born 259 years ago today.

One of the highest honors in medicine is having a disease named after you. Though television and movies often make it seem as if diseases are named after athletes and other photogenic types, they are actually named after the first person who describes the disease in enough detail for it to be found by other physicians. And one of the best and earliest examples of this is Parkinson’s disease, which is named after James Parkinson.

Dr. Parkinson(Image courtesy Parkinson's & Movement Disorders Group)

Dr. Parkinson
(Image courtesy Parkinson’s & Movement Disorders Institute)

James was born on April 11, 1755. He was one of those people that had too much ability to constrain himself to one field, working as an apothecary surgeon, a paleontologist, a geologist, and a politician. In between bouts of agitating for universal sufferage and popular representation, James collected fossils from around England and eventually published one of the first sets of books classifying the fossils into different types similar to the way that living animals are classified. He and his son published the first description of appendicitis in English, and worked on several treatises promoting public health. His many contributions to science have been honored with a red tulip, known as the James Parkinson cultivar.

But his most famous work was a meticulous study describing six cases of what he called “a shaking palsy”. James observed these patients during their daily routines, including eating, walking, and other activities, and was able to describe how the disease progressed. Published in 1817, the treatise soon became the standard for diagnosing the disease; in 1863, the disease was named in his honor.

Parkinson’s disease remains a problem today. No true cure exists even though several approaches, including surgery that was tried for the first time on April 11, 1953, and drugs that alleviate the symptoms, have been developed. Treatment today focuses on management of the symptoms and improving the patient’s quality of life. Thanks to improvements in our knowledge of the disease, patients survive seven years longer and with much higher quality of life.

But progress depends on getting honest and open feedback from the patients and their caregivers. If you’d like to help researchers with their work on Parkinson’s, or any of a number of other diseases, then head on over to Patients Like Me, where you can track your disease, find support, and share your stories with researchers. Who knows? You may inspire the next James Parkinson to find a cure!

April 10 – Mount Doom

Today’s Factismal: The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 put enough ash into the atmosphere to cool the Earth and create “the Year without a Summer”.

Back in 1784, Benjamin Franklin suggested that there might be a connection between unseasonably cold weather in Europe and the eruption of volcano Laki in Iceland. His idea didn’t gain much attention until 31 years later when Mount Tambora spewed forth ash and lava in the largest eruption ever observed. Though Krakatau, which came 68 years later, is better known, Mount Tambora’s eruption was ten times larger.

More than one third of the mountain disappeared in the eruption, which sent more than 24 cubic miles of ash into the air and reduced the mountain’s height by 4,000 ft. Ash shot more than 27 miles into the air. The explosion was heard more than 1,200 miles away. The lava flows, lahars, and tsunamis created by the eruption killed more than 11,000 people. But things would soon get even worse.

Deception Island in Antarctica is a volcano that last erupted in 1969 (My camera)

Deception Island in Antarctica is a volcano that last erupted in 1969
(My camera)

The eruption put ash, sulfur dioxide, and other particulates into the atmosphere where they reflected sunlight from the Earth, causing the globe to cool by nearly a full degree F. Though one degree doesn’t sound like much, it was enough to keep the ground frozen in North America and Europe until well into the summer. As a result, there were very few crops harvested that year, which led to widespread food shortages and the largest famine of the 19th century. The starvation and cold combined to kill an estimated 75,000 people, making this one of the deadliest natural disasters ever.

Etna is one of hte most active volcanoes in the world with an eruption every few years (My dad's camera)

Etna is one of hte most active volcanoes in the world with an eruption every few years
(My dad’s camera)

Fortunately, the cooling that a volcanic eruption creates is very short-lived. In less than four years, the ash and particulates had fallen from the air, allowing the globe to warm up. But the scientific interest that the eruption created continues to this day. When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 and when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it was Mount Tambora that vulcanologists compared them to.

Interestingly, vulcanologists monitoring Mount Tambora have noticed signs that it may be getting ready for another major eruption soon. When that happens (or when any other volcano erupts), they why not download the myVolcano app from the British Geological survey?

April 9 – Up and away

Today’s Factismal: The USA’s first seven astronauts were announced in 1959.

Fifty-five years ago today, the US took a small step forward by announcing that the first seven astronauts had been selected from a field of thousands. Because they would fly in a Mercury capsule, they were called the Mercury Seven. (It seemed logical at the time, but caused all kinds of problems when the seventh Mercury capsule was launched in 1962.) In order of their flights, the seven astronauts were John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.

The seven new astronauts were also test pilots. Left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton(Image courtesy NASA)

The seven new astronauts were also test pilots. Left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton
(Image courtesy NASA)

Interestingly, at the same time that NASA ran its tests to decide which man would make the best astronauts, several women took the same tests; in many cases, they took them in the same facilities as the NASA astronaut candidates. What was surprising about the women’s test results is that, on average, they did better than the men did. However, this was 1959 and women’s liberation was a decade away. As a result, despite strong support from the researchers and some in Congress, the women were excluded from consideration; it would be 24 years before America would have a woman astronaut.

The official Mercury flight patch. The individual flights didn't have patches.(Image courtesy NASA)

The official Mercury flight patch. The individual flights didn’t have patches.
(Image courtesy NASA)

The most interesting thing about the Mercury Seven was that they weren’t all that different from the average person. Six were engineers, and one had no college degree. What the seven were selected for was temperament more than anything else. As little was known about flying in space, a phlegmatic temperament was an astronaut’s best asset in the early days. Though they were all test pilots, that was because spacecraft were (and still are) classified as “experimental vehicles”. Only two of the Mercury Seven ever actually “flew” their craft (Carpenter and Slayton); the other astronauts were, in Chuck Yeager’s infamous words “spam in a can”.

The Mercury program was a rousing success. It soon proved not only that people could be sent into space and survive, but also that astronauts could and should fly their capsules – something that the Russian program never permitted. Though it lasted only four years, it had twenty successful unmanned flights and six successful manned flights. Those milestones led directly to the Gemini and Apollo programs and to our landing on the Moon a decade later.

Today, there are several groups trying to bring spaceflight to ordinary people like you and me. If you’d like to follow in the contrails of the Mercury Seven, then why not join the Citizens in Space group?